Welcome to College Inside, a newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. I’m Charlotte West, a national reporter for Open Campus. Sign up for a copy of this newsletter here.
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A biweekly newsletter about the future of postsecondary education in prisons. By Charlotte West.
The last class, 28 years later
For this story, I collaborated with John Corley, associate editor of the Louisiana State Penitentiary prison news magazine, The Angolite. Read a longer version, which includes updates on other members of the “last class” at Angola to receive federal Pell Grants, here.
Politicians don’t know what to do about crime. But they’re going to do something. Even if it’s wrong.
That was a provocative commencement speaker’s message almost 30 years ago. “The country is ready to spend billions of dollars on what politicians say are solutions to crime: more prisons, longer sentences, more death penalties, and the famous ‘three strikes and you’re out.’”
Just as unusual, perhaps, was the speaker. John P. Whitley, the warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola, presided over the commencement for the Northwest Missouri Community College class of 1994.
“If these policies were effective, Louisiana would be the safest state in the union. Only a few months ago Louisiana was declared the most dangerous place to live.”
The warden’s solution? Education.
Whitley’s scathing graduation speech, published in the prison news magazine The Angolite, stood in sharp contrast to the tough-on-crime rhetoric of the 1990s. In his address, Whitley mourned the possible loss of the programs he brought to Angola.
Sixty-two graduates received certificates in paralegal studies and computer technology on that day in May 1994, The Angolite reported.
The graduates were members of “the last class,” the final group of incarcerated students who were able to receive financial aid before Congress eliminated Pell Grants in 1994. It won’t be until 2023 when wide-scale access to Pell Grants will once again be available inside state and federal prisons.
Today, some of the graduates have built careers using the paralegal education that was financed with a $2,400 Pell Grant. Darren Hooks, now 62, is still at Angola working as an “inmate counsel substitute” – a type of jailhouse lawyer appointed by the prison. Hooks’ story chronicles the ups and downs of prison education at a time when a warden who believed in education was swimming upstream against a tidal wave of tough-on-crime policies.
An incentive for education
When Hooks arrived at Angola in September 1981, the foremost thing on his mind was survival. He was 22, fresh from service in the U.S. Army Reserves, with a life sentence for murder. Under relentless media scrutiny, Angola’s reputation as the bloodiest prison in America was cemented in the public consciousness.
Like every other healthy man incarcerated at Angola, Hooks was expected to work. Like every other new arrival, he was assigned to a farm line. These lines could consist of a hundred men marching in the early morning to work sites within vast agricultural plots.
Field work was backbreaking and demeaning. Prisoners constantly sought ways around it. Feigning illness and injury rarely worked unless there was visible blood or bone.
There was, however, one ticket to a break from the farm lines. In addition to the GED, Angola offered a handful of vocational training schools—but not to everyone. “Guys with life sentences weren’t even considered,” Hooks said.
A door opened, quickly shut again
New policies and programs introduced under Whitley, the warden, expanded educational opportunities to all eligible prisoners regardless of their sentence in the early 1990s.
The paralegal and computer technology classes were open to lifers for just a year when, in 1992, Congress removed eligibility for Pell Grants from people who had been sentenced to life without parole or the death penalty—a harbinger of things to come.
When the community college came to Angola, Hooks signed up for the paralegal program, which crammed two years of coursework into one. The course instructor, an attorney, helped Hooks and several other prisoners file suit in federal court when it became clear the program would be shut down because of the Pell ban, Hooks said.
They asked for an injunction against shutting down the classes, since they were already underway and paid for through Pell. Ultimately, the court dismissed the case, finding that the men had no constitutional right to a postsecondary education.
By that time, Hooks had completed most of his studies, but students who had only recently begun their education had the rug pulled out from under them. In the end, education lost out to politics when Congress passed the 1994 crime bill. By February 1995, the community college had pulled out of Angola entirely.
After graduating, Hooks returned to a kitchen job. A few years later, Burl Cain, the warden who came in after Whitley in 1995, announced that there was a dearth of qualified inmate counsel substitutes in the law library. Building on the foundation laid by the paralegal course, Hooks jumped at the opportunity and was assigned to his new job in the law library in 1997. He’s been there ever since, earning 85 cents an hour, helping prisoners with thousands of court claims.
The prison-to-law-school pipeline
Another group of incarcerated students, in a paralegal program in Minnesota, will be among the first to participate in legal education programs funded by restored federal financial aid.
North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota was selected as one of 73 new Second Chance Pell sites for fall 2022. Access to Pell Grants will allow North Hennepin to fund a cohort of 20 incarcerated students in the college’s paralegal program, said Mary Fenske, paralegal program director.
The program began as a pilot with a cohort of 5 students, who will finish their 30-credit certificate in May 2023, at Shakopee and Stillwater state prisons. The 5 students are being privately funded by law firms in the Twin Cities.
Heather Horst is one of the students in the first cohort. She was interested in the paralegal program because she wants to help others understand the nuances of the legal system, such as disparities in sentencing for the same crime.
“Many women here don’t understand the law,” Horst said. “And if you’re going to hold somebody accountable for something, how can you do that if they don’t understand? I want people to be held accountable appropriately.”
The program is working with All Square, a nonprofit organization based in Minneapolis. All Square has also collaborated with Mitchell Hamline School of Law to create the Prison to Law Pipeline.
Maureen Onyelobi, who is currently serving a life sentence at Shakopee, will start in Mitchell Hamline’s juris doctor program this fall. She is believed to be the first person to attend law school from behind bars.
The American Bar Association recently granted an exception to its regular requirements to allow Onyelobi to attend classes entirely online, which she will do from the Shakopee prison. Her tuition will be covered through private funds and the same scholarship assistance available to all Mitchell Hamline students. The association will allow Mitchell Hamline to admit up to two incarcerated students each academic year for five years.
Onyelobi took the LSAT for the second time in April, and didn’t know she had been accepted into the law school until she received a surprise visit at the prison from the law school dean Anthony Niedwiecki last week.
“I didn’t think I could get an advanced degree beyond a bachelor’s in any field,” she told Open Campus. “It’s so fitting that someone who’s actually been incarcerated and who could actually relate to what their clients are going through can actually earn a law degree.”
In case you missed it
Read a first-person essay by Khalil A. Scott about why young adult housing units are the ideal setting for college-in-prison programs.
In Mississippi Today, Molly Minta reports on the state’s first historically Black college to offer a Second Chance Pell program.
Please connect if you have story ideas or just want to share your experience with prison education programs as a student or educator. You can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org on JPay/Securus/Connect Network/Corrlinks or on Twitter at @szarlotka.
To reach me via snail mail, you can write to: Charlotte West, Open Campus Media, 2460 17th Avenue #1015, Santa Cruz, CA 95062.